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Published May 17, 2010, 12:00 AM

Advocates say urban farming feeds the poor, provides jobs

Duluth could soon be awash in home-grown vegetables if two new programs taking seed this spring sprout as organizers hope.

By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune

Duluth could soon be awash in home-grown vegetables if two new programs taking seed this spring sprout as organizers hope.

One program, Seeds of Success, sponsored by Community Action Duluth, is turning vacant lots into urban vegetable farms where seasonal workers will grow produce to sell to local restaurants.

The workers might earn a little money for their efforts, and Duluthians will see more home-grown vegetables in the local market. The city and other groups already have donated use of seven vacant lots to be turned into gardens.

“From what we hear, stores and restaurants just can’t get enough locally grown, organic produce,’’ said Angie Miller, executive director of Community Action Duluth. The group has hired both a community sustainable agriculture expert and a food marketing expert to help the program succeed.

Participants in the city’s Youth Employment Service work program, 18- to 21-year-olds, will be trained to garden and grow vegetables. The goal is for them to be able to keep some vegetables and sell the rest.

Seeds of Success is modeled after a program called Growing Power in Milwau­kee that helps low-income urban residents grow, process, market and distribute food in a sustainable manner — meaning low impact on the environment with few if any chemicals and reduced use of fossil fuels.

“It’s starting as a green jobs program to put a few people to work in a garden,’’ said Michael Latsch, coordinator of the Seeds of Success program. “We hope it can become nearly self-

sustaining, so there are enough sales of produce to pay for the program, or at least get close.’’

No garden? No problem

In another effort, the Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank has received 20 free container garden sets that include nearly everything someone needs to start a vegetable garden on their deck, driveway, patio or yard. The kits — seeds, containers, directions and more — were donated by Sydney’s Green Garden, a new Duluth-based company trying to preach the gospel of locally grown, sustainable agriculture.

All participants do is add is dirt, water and elbow grease.

Each of the container gardens can grow up to 15 varieties of vegetables that will offer low-income families who use the food shelf a chance to grow their own fresh, nutritious foods that are often out of economic reach at retail stores.

“If your money is limited, fresh vegetables often are too expensive to purchase,’’ said Shaye Morris, executive director of the food bank. “For the right family, this is a great opportunity to supplement their food needs and do it in such a positive way.’’

Most of the produce Northlanders buy at retail groceries come from far away — California, Florida or Latin America. That shipping requires a lot of fuel and creates a lot of carbon emissions. Moreover, large commercial vegetable operations use large amounts of chemicals and fossil fuels for fertilizer, pesticides and field work. Some have been criticized for poor worker health and safety.

Local options are available, such as buying shares in the Food Farm or similar cooperatives and buying from farmers markets or retail stores like Whole Foods Co-op. But those outlets can’t supply an entire region.

Scott Vesterstein, founder of Sydney’s Green Garden — named after his daughter — usually sells his vegetable container sets for $89. The 12 containers in the system take up only 16 square feet and grow 15 varieties of vegetables. The system will fit almost anywhere there’s a little sunshine.

“You’d be amazed how much you can grow in such a little space,’’ said Vesterstein, noting he has a wealth of fresh vegetables from mid-June into September, including carrots, lettuce, peas, spinach, cucumbers, beets, beans and more. “This is a legitimate way to grow pesticide-free, organic food — and lots of it — right outside your window. It’s not that hard.’’

Little gardens save big oil

Vesterstein, owner of the Fitgers Brewery Complex in Duluth, started container gardening on his driveway in 2003 and has been expanding his interest and efforts ever since. That includes selecting seeds specific to the Northland environment. He’s even become certified in designing space for new homes to fit vegetable garden space into the design, and now he’s donating kits to local third-grade classes and developing kits for Third World communities.

According to the Organic Consumers Association, every American uses about 400 gallons of oil each year just through the food they eat. Some 17 percent of our nation’s energy use goes to agriculture, from tractors working the fields to packaging to trucks to store shelves. The groceries Americans buy have traveled an average of 1,500 miles from field to table.

Vesterstein says that, if every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week of organically and locally raised produce and meats, the nation could cut oil use by 57 million barrels each year. Even more would be saved if the veggies came from right outside each home’s own kitchen.

“Maybe the beginning of becoming a less energy-dependent nation starts one garden at a time,’’ Vesterstein said.

Anyone interested in obtaining one of the food bank’s free container kits should call Amy Hildre at (218) 727-5653.

For more information on purchasing container kits from Sydney’s Green Gardens, go to